International naval forces will never be able to completely secure the vast area of ocean where Somali pirates are hijacking ships off East Africa, the commander of the EU Naval Force's counter-piracy efforts said Tuesday.
In the latest attack, pirates captured the Greek-flagged tanker Maran Centaurus on Sunday while it was carrying 275,000 metric tons of crude oil, the ship's owners said. That is equivalent to about 2 million barrels of oil worth roughly $150 million, said Ben Cahill, head of the Petroleum Risk Manager service at PFC Energy.
The naval commander said the Maran Centaurus was traveling east of an area that the EU Naval Force advises tankers to steer clear of, so that it wouldn't necessarily have expected to have been attacked. Pirates now hold 11 ships and 264 crew members off the coast of Somalia, said Rear Adm. Peter Hudson.
"The news of a few days ago of a 300,000-ton tanker being seized is illustrative of the problems in protecting and policing an area of the world's oceans that amounts to an area of about 1 million square miles," said Hudson, the commander of the EU Naval Force's counter-piracy operations.
Hudson also said the fact that pirates are now attacking ships as far as 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) off the Somali coast presents a large challenge and that the EU force will never fully secure such a large area. The EU Naval Force's strategy in the smaller Gulf of Aden is to lengthen the amount of time it takes pirates to get on board so that a warship or helicopter can be dispatched to the scene.
"The difficulties in an area as large as it is in the Indian Ocean with the short number of assets that we have is that ... the pirate can keep going and keep going and keep going until it's successful in getting on board, because there's nothing there to stop it," he said.
Hudson said oil tankers like the Maran Centaurus can be tempting targets.
"She's a big ol' girl, almost a quarter million tons. They're not speedy, they sit low in the water ... so a determined pirate like this one can be successful," Hudson said in Kenya during an extended trip to East Africa.
As pirate activity has increased off East Africa, some ships have begun carrying armed guards. The EU Naval Force said Tuesday that a Spanish fishing vessel with a private security team on board fired warning shots at pirates during an attack Sunday, fending off the hijack attempt.
However, fuel tankers like the Maran Centaurus do not have armed security because of how flammable the cargo is, a determination Hudson said he agrees with.
"At the moment the consensus is, and I think quite rightly, let's be very wary before we bring military groups, armed guards, civilian guards onto fuel tankers full of fuel and gas," he said.
Bigger tankers like the Maran Centaurus are too large to use the Suez Canal and must sail south around Africa to Europe or the U.S., said Samuel Ciszuk, an analyst for IHS Global Insight. But if attacks increase, those tankers will have to steer clear of a large part of the northwest Indian Ocean and southwest Arabian Sea, adding days to the trip.
The operating costs will then rise, not only for fuel and wages for the crew but insurance premiums, Ciszuk said.
Somalia's lawless 1,880-mile coastline has become a pirate haven. The impoverished Horn of Africa nation has not had a functioning government for a generation and the weak U.N.-backed administration is too busy fighting an Islamist insurgency to go after pirates.
Hudson said the piracy problem is not going to be solved "by racing around the Indian Ocean capturing pirates. The longterm solution is onshore in Somalia."
The Maran Centaurus is only the second oil tanker captured by Somali pirates. The Saudi-owned Sirius Star was hijacked a year ago, leading to heightened international efforts to fight piracy off the Horn of Africa. That hijacking ended with a $3 million ransom payment. The ship held 2 million barrels of oil valued at about $100 million and was released last January.
The EU Naval Force escorts humanitarian aid to Somalia, including World Food Program aid. The force has escorted more than 50 convoys and 300,000 tons of food into Somalia, Hudson said.